Thursday, March 21, 2013

Gear Review: Mountain Hardwear Men's Chockstone Pant

I have been searching for the perfect pair of pants to wear in my climbing and guiding for quite some time now.  I certainly haven't found them yet, but I thought I'd at least share what I've learned in the process.  Here are my criteria for my pair of do-anything (rock climbing, hiking, alpine routes, ice and snow climbing on occasion) pants:

Soft Shell
Odds are good (who am I kidding--it's basically guaranteed) that at some point I will be drenched in pouring rain wearing these pants.  Consequently, any pant I use regularly needs to be lightweight and quick drying.  It would also be great if it shed water to deal with a light drizzle without getting unpleasantly wet quadriceps.  Also vitally important is a weave that is windproof.  I personally find that wind can be quite energizing in the right conditions, but little will sap motivation faster than wind that cuts right through your layers.  Combining these qualities usually leaves me exploring options in the lightweight soft shell department.


Mobility
The pants must also fit well, particularly with regards to mobility.  They should be relatively low bulk; not so tight as to restrict movement, not so baggy as to snag on every branch while walking, and capable of comfortably fitting a pair of long underwear or fleece tights underneath.  Further, I am looking for a gusseted crotch and articulated knees to move with me while I climb.


Pockets
I like my pants to have a plethora of pockets so that I can readily access key items while climbing.  Especially when on long routes or when guiding, it is invaluable to be able to get important items without having to dig in my backpack.  My water bladder and hose provide a ready supply of water, my watch on my harness provides information on time, altitude, and bearing, snacks stashed in a pocket are always at hand, and quick access to my smart phone provides me route information and a camera to get shots of my second or take photos of landmarks for later.  My ideal pant has two thigh pockets, two front hand warmer pockets, and a back hip pocket, at least 2 or 3 of which are accessible in a harness while the rest just let me carry my keys and wallet when I walk into the convenience store at the end of the climbing day.


Durable
http://www.mountainhardware.com
In an ideal world, I'd be able to drag my pants between a slab of granite and a variety of sharp implements repeatedly without any tears, rips, holes, scuffs, or loose threads.



Finally...
If I can get it, I like my pants to have a reverse fly to make it easy to use in a harness.  It's also great to find them in gray, that perfect compromise color.  It's not black, so I don't absorb excess heat in the summer or the desert, and it's not khaki so I don't lose heat in the winter or show too much dirt.  Gray also goes with nearly any other color (my jackets tend to be more colorful).  This is certainly not my overriding concern, but I'd probably look at least a little weird meeting clients in purple pants and an orange shirt.

Now, the big question:  how do the Mountain Hardwear Men's Chockstone Pants stack up?

Pros:
The Chockstone Pant has quite a bit going for it on my list.  Soft shell--stretchy, breathable, lightweight, quick drying.  Check.  Good fit--stretchy, gusseted, articulated, accommodates layering, not baggy.  Check.  Lots of pockets--and they are accessible under a harness.  Check.  And they come in gray.  Check.

The Chockstone's are quite comfortable and have great mobility.  I've had no trouble stemming or high-stepping in them, they're not restrictive, and they fit well under a harness.  They are roomy enough to breathe well or accommodate long underwear as required.  They are not 100% windproof, but they resist wind well unless the gusting is severe or winds are quite sustained.  They also dry rapidly, on or off the body.  The typically drying time on my body from totally soaked to nearly dry is under an hour in warm weather.  The pockets are positioned in such a way that my harness leg loops ride between my front pockets and thigh pockets, giving me access to both while wearing a harness.

Cons:
Moving right along with pockets, the downside is the zippering on the thigh pockets.  For some inexplicable reason, the zippers run diagonally down the pocket.  This effectively halves the pocket size, since when the pocket is fully open, items inside are at significant risk of spilling out.  It's definitely not a place I like to store my notebook or a phone.  I would much prefer a simple horizontal zip across the top of the pocket.  It would also be cool to see a reverse fly zipper.  In some ways it seems like they designed the zippers for a climbing pant without actually talking to any climbers.

The other negative is in the fabric durability.  The material is a bit stretchy and actually pretty resistant to tears, rips, and micro-holes.  However, it abrades like it was designed that way. Within 2 days of use, the fabric had "balled up" up and down the legs.  I use my gear hard, but not that hard that it should be balling up after 2 days of use.  Similarly, the DWR finish stopped working in what seemed like a matter of minutes.  These pants will not resist water.  They will dry quite quickly when wet, but introduce them to snow or light rain and you will be getting wet.  That being said, despite the balling up and fuzzing, they've actually withstood tears and micro-holes fairly well.

Summary: 

I expect a lot from my pants, so any product will have a hard time stacking up perfectly.  Overall, the Chockstone Pants are relatively well-designed--good fit, good material, and good durability.  I'd prefer a different zipper configuration and I'd love to see a pair that don't fuzz up instantly.  Despite these short-comings, the price point is quite low compared to comparable products from other companies, meaning that durability shortfalls are a bit more sufferable.  They're not perfect, and I don't think I'd call them my favorite, but they work, they last a good long while, and I can always afford another pair, so they're still in my rotation.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Break the Silence

In general, I don't use our blog as a platform for anything that isn't climbing or adventure related--trip reports, gear reviews, pro tips, and the occasional short story.  Lately, however, I have been seeing a lot of media regarding the recent Steubenville rape case that has got me thinking.  In particular, a friend on Facebook recently shared a link to a posting on upworthy.com titled "Remember That Time A Rapist Got Convicted And The Internet Threatened To Kill The Victim For It?"  What I found there troubled me quite a bit and was clearly indicative of the still-pervasive rape culture in this country.

For 18 months during undergraduate I volunteered as a rape crisis advocate for survivors of sexual assault in and around Columbia, South Carolina.  I worked a Thursday night shift every week, and there was not a single week that I did not get called to a local hospital to provide advocacy for someone undergoing a rape protocol exam.  I have witnessed the very real consequences of rape, and I have met and know personally more than my share of rape survivors.

I wrote the story below some months ago as a cathartic piece but had not really pursued formal or informal publication of it until now.  While it is fictionalized and no real names are used, make no mistake that this is the sort of thing that I saw on a weekly basis.  There is some graphic language, but I feel it is wholly appropriate.  While it may be tempting to accuse survivors of rape of being "sluts" who were "asking for it," my hope is that in reading this piece it might be possible to see just a glimpse of what the survivor endures.

*     *     *

I can’t recall all of the exact intervening steps, but it was well before 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning when Jane and I left downtown.  Sometime in the pre-dawn darkness, I found myself sitting with Jane on the floor of her cramped bedroom in the residence hall.  I remember not knowing exactly what to say as she spoke at me, detached at first, then in bouts and spasms of uncontrollable sobbing.  I was in the unenviable position of wanting to comfort her with every fiber of my being, yet was at an absolute loss as to how to do so.

In my own private, empathic agony, I witnessed her soft features drawn up sharply, her otherwise fair cheeks tight and her lips pulled up, opening her mouth just enough for sobs to escape.  Her normally soft, full brunette hair was frizzed and frayed, accenting her furrowing and frowning brown eyes. Her face was drained of blood yet somehow flushed, eyes bloodshot, and chin dirtied from a slowly gathering stream of tears and snot.  She was at once beautiful and pitiable.

She hunched forward, shoulders heaving between sobs, head hanging down, fixating on some spot between her feet, as she sat cross-legged on the recycled plastic fibers that the university would have us believe served as carpet.

Her head still lowered toward the floor, she drew her gaze up to look at me across the room, just a short distance away, within arm’s reach.  Her pupils refocused, and through them I saw a maelstrom of emotion—anguish, shame, guilt, confusion, and an undeniable entreaty to be loved in a way more genuine than anyone could hope to imagine.

I wanted so very badly to reach out to her, draw her head near to my chest, place my hand on her upper back, stroke here hair, hug her, and comfort her.  But I couldn’t; things were complicated.  In my bewilderment, I didn’t think to ask if she would like a hug.  Instead, I simply sat and listened, offering with my presence as much consolation as I could to someone in her situation.

I wanted to tell her that everything would be alright.  I wanted to make her believe that.  I wanted her to feel comfortable in her own skin.  I wanted to make her feel safe again.

I wanted to beat the ever-living shit out of Neal.

But I couldn’t do any of that.

Instead, we got in her car and I drove us out of the city, away.  I had no idea where we were going, and it didn’t matter in the slightest.  We just needed to go.  Away.  Anywhere.

Soon we were exiting the interstate at the local commercial district, in an upscale suburb replete with chain restaurants, a mall, SUVs full of soccer moms and their children, box stores, and the most congested traffic pattern within a 100-mile radius.  But this early on Sunday morning we had the roads to ourselves and soon found our way to the parking lot of a large chain bookstore just as it was opening.

Jane and I made our way to the back of the store and planted ourselves firmly in the center of the bright, cheery children’s section.  As we seated ourselves at a table much too small for us, I watched Jane closely, gauging her reaction.  She offered a weak half-smile, more for my benefit than hers, and sank into her seat.

I hoped being surrounded by the children’s book, toys, bright colors, and an artificial tree house would help raise her spirits a tiny bit, if just by ambiance alone.  In cases of such emotional distress, I was sometimes drawn to tap into a more innocent, child-like frame of mind.

We sat and sipped our recently purchased, over-priced coffee-derived beverages; I couldn’t help but feel a little ridiculous.  From across the table, my best friend’s ex-girlfriend expressed it in words:

“This is a little ridiculous.”

I concurred.  “Yeah, but we had to do something.”

Jane nodded, and looked momentarily wistful.  “Thank you.”

I smiled across the table at her, finally feeling like I might be doing something right.  “Any time,” I said.

Over the course of the next few minutes we began forgetting.  We forgot how inhuman humans can be to each other.  We forgot how neither of us had really slept much.  We forgot how exhausting but relieving it can feel after a solid bout of catharsis.  And, most of all, we forgot what Neal had done less than 12 hours earlier.

But we didn’t really forget that part.  That’s not the kind of thing you ever really forget.

Neither of us was sure to what extent, but we both knew that Jane and Neal’s respective states of inebriation clouded the issue.  What was perfectly clear, however, was that Neal had perpetrated a heinous indignity against Jane.

In the early hours of the morning, still in her room, she had described to me in detail how Neal had suggested things to her, suggestions she was not comfortable with, that she politely declined.  Suggestions that weren’t really suggestions at all.

She described how he brought her a drink because “no one should be at a party without a beer in their hand.”  She described how she had followed him from the party to his bedroom and found herself kissing with him. She described how they awkwardly laid down next to each other on the floor.  Then, she described how with a slow, constant pressure, he “suggested” her slowly down toward his waist, unbuttoned his pants, and stood up, inserting himself into her mouth along the way.

Surprised and angered, she pushed herself forcefully away, against his thighs.  He immediately countered by placing both hands behind her head and pulling sharply forward.  He repeated this motion, thrusting, again, and again, and again.  She felt herself growing strangely distant, watching from outside herself as he thrust with increasing fervor.

When she finally returned to a consciousness no longer outside of herself, she was covered in his spunk.  It pervaded everything, globs of it in her mouth, on her tongue, on her teeth, her cheek, the back of her throat, her eyelid.  Seemingly in one motion, Neal slapped his member across her face, re-buttoned his pants, and said, “Thanks.  That wasn’t bad,” on his way out the door.

Stunned, it took her a few moments before she even thought to get up off her knees.  In a fog, she made her way from the party back to her place.  Within the hour, she had called me.

So here we were, in an empty bookstore, trying to come to terms with the reality of the situation.  She had finally calmed down enough to begin making decisions:  She did not want to tell anyone else.  She did not want to say anything to Neal.  She did not want to get a rape protocol exam.  She did not need medical attention.  She did not want to press charges.

I had trouble focusing as we discussed this.  I was acutely aware that nothing would happen to Neal as a result of this.  And Neal would do the same thing again.  And again.  And again.  And nothing would stop him until someone finally broke the silence.

But I could not break the silence today, because of Jane’s wishes.  I stood up and moved stiffly to the nearby bookshelf.  I never knew what to say.  What could I possibly wish for an individual who had endured so much pain?  With each survivor I met, I always hoped it would never happen to anyone ever again, knowing all too well that was blatantly untrue.

I returned to the table, anxious to gulp down more caffeine.  Somehow I thought this would help calm my nerves.  I opened the book I had selected, placing it between us.

Oh The Places You’ll Go, by Doctor Seuss,” I said.

For the first time in what seemed like forever, Jane smiled.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Gear Review: La Sportiva Boulder X Mid GTX

Recently, I've been on the hunt for some new footwear to add to the arsenal.  As I climb more and varied things in more and varied locations, footwear selection has become as important as the specialization in any of my other tools.  The underlying principle is that a multipurpose tool will be alright at most things but excel at none.  When high performance is demanded, specialization is required.  Consequently, I have numerous sets of footwear in my quiver--approach shoes, light boots, mountain boots, down-turned climbing shoes, flat-lasted climbing shoes, etc.  So, what gap was I looking to fill?  The criteria are below.

Boot platform
http://www.sportiva.com
This shoe essentially needed to bridge the gap between snow and rock on summer alpine terrain.  For that reason I was interested in a boot platform for all the things a boot can do well:  hump heavy hiking loads, keep out water, have a bit of a mid- to high top to keep out snow and scree, and provide an opportunity for warmth in chillier temps.  Also, like everything else I purchase, durability matters--it needs to last.

Climbing
The shoe needed to climb well on rock and reasonably well on snow.  The plan was to be able to climb up to 5.7 on rock to avoid having to bring a pair of climbing shoes on moderate alpine rock routes.  On snow, I wanted to be able to kick steps and plunge step with it.  I had been using the Five Ten Exum Guide for a similar purpose, but the rounded heel cage on it makes plunge stepping rather insecure.  Finally, it would be great if the boot could take a light strap-on crampon for the occasional icy patches.

After examining the options, I settled on the La Sportiva Boulder X Mid GTX.

Pros:
The first thing I noticed about the Boulder X Mid was how incredibly lightweight the boot is.  In my hands and on my feet, it easily felt as light as my Exum Guides.  Weighing in at only 17.9oz / pair, the Boulder X Mid is actually just a bit lighter in my shoe size.  While I certainly don't intentionally purchase heavy equipment, weight is not usually a major consideration in my gear purchases because light weight usually translates to reduced durability.  In this case, though, I think I've found the best of both worlds.

The Boulder X has also met or exceeded my expectations in nearly every other respect as well.  They climb quite well.  The rubber is sticky but long-lasting, and consequently the boot smeared much better than I expected.  Also, the lacing system allows for a fairly tight fit in the toe box when conditions demand it.  Paired with a heavy-weight wool sock, they're warm enough for temps around 25-30F and the Gore-Tex liner is true-to-form as both highly water-resistant but breathable.  Adding a mini-gaiter to my set-up has made these boots a tad warmer and basically impervious to water, snow, and scree.  They even performed well in the most annoying of mixed conditions--one inch of snow atop slabby granite.

Cons:
There are just a couple spots where these boots could be improved.  The way the sole is bonded to the rand makes for a fairly floppy edge on the boot, requiring a lot more toe power when edging on small holds.  A stiffer edge would make for easier climbing.  Cutting a ridge into the instep of the sole would help them plunge-step a bit better as well.  Finally, I found that after many miles in the boots, the insole is not quite as comfortable as my other approaches shoes and boots.

Summary: 
The La Sportiva Boulder X Mid GTX provides a great platform for tackling easy-to-moderate climbing on rock and snow while also providing the environmental protection of a light boot (at a very light weight).  With a few minor tweaks to the soles, they'd be my ideal summer alpine boot.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Debrief of the SPI Exam

My AMGA SPI Exam ended late last Sunday afternoon. Ron debriefed the three of us candidates as a group, and then we received our assessments individually. Afterwards, I called Derek to tell him how I did. When he answered the phone, I started crying.

“Susan?!”

I cried for maybe five minutes before I finally stuttered out, “I p-passed...”

Derek held back a laugh and asked, “Then why are you crying?” He was clearly perplexed.

“I'm crying because I didn't pass good,” I mumbled back.

I struggled with what to share in this post. I had been hoping to gush gleefully about how amazingly I did during my exam thanks to all of my preparations, how I had no doubts or failures along the way. However, as Ron reminded me at the end of my debrief, there is no such thing as a perfect guiding day. And I definitely did not do perfectly on my exam.

My performance wasn't riddled with mistakes (I wouldn't have passed otherwise), but I definitely made mistakes that I should not have. For example, at one point I completely blanked while rigging a 3:1 assisted haul, which is a skill that was strictly review for me during my SPI Course. I should have breezed through that scenario, and I'm disappointed in myself that I didn't. 

Nevertheless, during the exam I remained open to instruction as well as self analysis. For every assignment I completed, I took a moment to think about how I could have done it better... sometimes this practice was accompanied by a nice big *facepalm.* Sometimes it was just a thought of, “oooh, it would be interesting to try [insert action] instead.” 

Ron provided all of us with suggestions for improvement along the way and encouraged us to think critically about how we accomplished our tasks. I feel like I learned even more on this exam than I did during the course last fall, and despite my less than perfect performance, I really did enjoy the process. The course was all about learning specific hard skills, whereas the exam was about using those skills in adaptive, efficient ways while instructing. It was pretty cool. 

Now that it is done and I've had some time to process everything, I am excited instead of disappointed (okay, that's a lie, I'm still a little disappointed in myself). I did pass, and I also have been given great gift – clear and precise feedback on how I can improve. Because of this feedback, I can make a stellar plan on how to become the best damn climbing instructor I can be, which is absolutely crucial since I have also been given an amazing opportunity... 

I am now officially working for Fox Mountain Guides as a full-time climbing instructor! (And so is Derek! WOOHOO TEAM DEBRUIN!!!)  

So, I guess I didn't do too badly on the exam :) Anyway, I'm off to make my rockin' awesome plan. Part of it will definitely involve some physical fitness -- so all my running buddies, pretty please send me advice on how to get up to running 7 mountainous miles in under 70 minutes as fast as I can! Seriously, my cardio needs major help. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Exam Time


Tomorrow is day one of the exam.

I'm as prepared as I can be. I've gone out to practice every day I could, even when the weather wasn't cooperating. I've done pick offs, played with set up lines, and pushed myself to lead outside of my comfort zone. My crag bag is packed. My lunch made. My clothes set out. I've tied every knot I know over and over. And it's still daylight out.

All that's left is to just do it.

I know I should wrap up my story somehow, but I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to do that. Maybe because the story isn't really done yet. In a lot of ways, it's just beginning.

Wish me luck :)  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Choosing Your Mom

I am feeling much better after taking some time to chill out and get over my cold. It ended up snowing most of the day that I had decided to stay home, so I'm definitely glad I didn't go out. 

After I posted my sick-day-freak-out, I felt a little silly. Really, do people want to read about my insecurities? If I want to be some bad-ass guide, shouldn't I hide the fact that I'm a total worrier about everything? I should be tough and stoic and unaffected by silly things like anxiety. Right?

The next day, I met Cristin Julian, one of the new owners of Fox Mountain Guides - and I had the answers to my questions. She had actually been reading my posts, and she LIKED them. And what she liked about them was the fact that I DO spill my guts about my insecurities. I'm not some stoic, emotionally void mountain stomper. She helped me realize why I do want to keep sharing this whole process, even the parts where I'm being a total nincompoop. 

I want to share it because it's the whole story. I could hide the fact that I get really major test anxiety, but that is part of the journey for me. Of all the obstacles I've faced to pursue rock climbing, anxiety has been the biggest one -- not my own physical limitations or lack of technical skills. Anxiety. And it's when I master that anxiety that I feel the most accomplished.   

So, in honor of my sick-day-SPI-Exam-freak-out, here is the next phase of the story:  my SPI-Course-freak-out and how I dealt with that...

The SPI Course

I woke up for the first day of my SPI Course in a state of blind panic. I was wrapped in my sleeping bag in the back of our Toyota Matrix, where I had camped out for the night. It was still chilly in the pre-dawn morning. I forced my breathing to slow down as I reminded myself that I did know what I was doing, and I was prepared for the course, and it was only the course! I wasn't taking the test... yet.

I got myself under control and got dressed in the dark. I had laid out my clothes the night before and my bag was already packed with all of the gear I might need along with plenty of food and water. I was prepared. But I was still anxious.

The wasn't just about the SPI course. I had harassed and nagged two of the other participants into signing up so that the course would definitely run. I felt responsible for them and the couple hundred bucks they dropped to sign up. It would be beyond embarrassing to have convinced them to sign up for the course, then not do a good job myself.

I was even more nervous due to who was teaching the course – my husband's climbing mentor, AMGA Certified Rock Guide and all around bad-ass Ron Funderburke. Now, Ron is an awesome guy and I consider him a good friend. I've enjoyed spending time with him and his beautiful family with absolutely zero feelings of intimidation. He is also a great instructor who excels at putting his students at ease so they can learn as much as possible. 

Despite all that, I was still ready to puke at the thought of being his student. What if he thought I was dumb? Or really, what if I actually was dumb and this would be the glorious moment during which my dumbness would be revealed?

To top off my anxiety attack, there was always, of course, the fact that I'm Derek's wife. Derek, who despite the short number of years he has been climbing, has developed as a rock climber and a climbing instructor with an excellence and speed that boggles my mind. I took him for his first day of outdoor rock climbing just five years ago and now he is an AMGA Certified Rock Instructor who owns his own guiding company. And I'm that guy's wife. What would folks think when they learned that I'm really not all that good at rock climbing, despite my own 10 year history and being that guy's partner for half of it? And what would Derek think of me when Ron reported to him that I'm an absolute dumb-ass and a total lost cause??

Right. Because that would actually happen.

Ignoring my queasy stomach, I began my walk through the woods toward the building where I could get breakfast and coffee. I was the first one from the course in the dining hall, but was soon joined by Ron. He made a huge plate of food and dug in while I continued to sip at my coffee. As the other students filed in, I felt my anxiety start to dissipate in shuddering spurts. All of these men were my friends. None of them were here to judge me. We all came here to learn and maybe even have fun. Just chill. Breathe.

I still needed to break the ice, for myself more than anyone else. So, I did what any lady would do when surrounded by so many manly men – as soon as the opportunity arose, I cracked the worst “your mom” joke I could think of and sat back to enjoy the startled faces of my classmates.  

I have a hard time feeling freaked out when making lewd comments about men's moms.


My little stunt worked, for me at least. Of course, when Ron continued with jokes about my mom that made my ears turn red, I realized I needed to figure out a better ice breaker. Ron is much better at “your mom” jokes than me.  

Suggestions?  :)

Hanging out during the SPI Course. Literally.